POLICE ISSUES POLITICS & GOVERNANCE

Understanding Municipal Waters, Territorial Waters, and Territorial Sea in the Context of PH Maritime Policing

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(Updated – May 6, 2019) In maritime policing, a complicated issue regarding international maritime law is always raised, and this results in differing opinions. The issue is the question of the difference between “municipal waters” and “territorial sea”.

The term “municipal waters” and its defined 15 kilometers limit shall not be interchangeable with the 12 nautical miles “territorial sea” limit under UNCLOS. It is further unrelated to the popular general term “territorial waters”. Here’s why.


Legal basis and applicability

For one, legally speaking the term “municipal water” doesn’t exist in international laws.

That is because the term was created by domestic laws – the Republic Act 8550 or The Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998and subsequently amended by Republic Act 10654 or An Act To Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing”.

It is therefore applicable only in the domestic setting and specifically, for fisheries law enforcement (except for the provision for Poaching, which is applicable to foreign nationalities/vessels).

On the other hand, the term “territorial sea” is one of the maritime zones created by the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas or popularly known as “UNCLOS.”

Importantly, the term “territorial sea” shouldn’t be confused with the popular term “territorial waters” that is always being used in the mass media and even by some top government officials.

According to Professor Stuart Kaye, the Director of Australia National Center for Ocean Resource and Security (ANCORS) and a leading international expert for UNCLOS during the Laws of the Sea Seminar held in Makati City, the term used in UNCLOS is “territorial sea”, thus, we should stick to that for accuracy.

Prof. Kaye further said that the term “territorial waters” was popularized by the mainstream media that used it when actually referring to the “territorial sea”. The misuse is further exacerbated by the fact that diplomats and politicians also use the wrong term.

To avoid causing confusion, we should refrain from using the term “territorial waters” if we meant “territorial sea.”

UNCLOS Maritime Zones
UNCLOS Maritime Zones

Delineation: How it is generated and measured

The “municipal waters” are generated or started from the shoreline of each municipality. In RA 8550, it is defined as “xxx marine waters included between two (2) lines drawn perpendicular to the general coastline from points where the boundary lines of the municipality touch the sea at low tide and a third line parallel with the general coastline including offshore islands and fifteen (15) kilometers from such coastline. xxx”

Below is the Philippine map showing the municipal waters as stipulated in RA 8550:

Image is taken from Philippine Fisheries in Crisis – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate by Green, Asuncion, Et al. (2003).

On the other hand, the “territorial sea” of the Philippines is generated from its “archipelagic baselines” that were provided by RA 9522 in accordance to UNCLOS, which states that the “territorial sea” can be defined as the area which extends up to 12 nautical miles from the baseline of a coastal state.

Below is the Philippine map showing the “territorial sea” (thin colored blue area completely surrounding the general archipelago) with the Archipelagic waters (colored dark blue enclosed by the “territorial sea” and Exclusive Economic Zone (light blue) as part of the maritime zones of the country in accordance with UNCLOS:

Philippine Maritime Zones. Image credits to Roel Balingit, CC BY 2.5

Rights and Powers of the State under UNCLOS

The municipal waters’ 15km limit is usually associated and used in the fisheries and coastal management laws and other related local ordinances only. It has nothing to do with the questions on sovereignty that is accorded to the “territorial sea” under UNCLOS.

According to UNCLOS, the full sovereignty of a state extends up to the outer limits of the “territorial sea” only. Meaning, as a general rule, all laws of the coastal state are enforceable ONLY up to the edge of the “territorial sea.”

However, as an exception to the general rule, the coastal state is accorded by UNCLOS with a special right called “sovereign rights” in its Contiguous Zone (CZ) and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

According to UNCLOS, the coastal state has “sovereign rights” over its CZ and EEZ when it comes to; 1. Fiscal, Immigration, Sanitary and Customs (FISC) laws, and 2. fisheries and environmental laws, respectively.

Meaning, while the laws of the coastal state is limited up to the limits of “territorial sea”, the state can enforce its FISC up to CZ; while fisheries and environmental laws up to EEZ.

Exclusivity rule on Flag State Jurisdiction

It should be noted that the above issues on sovereignty and sovereign rights are applicable only to foreign vessels.

For Philippine-flagged and Philippine-registered vessels, they are completely covered by the sovereignty of the Philippines where ever they are. That is because they are covered by the so-called “Exclusivity rule on Flag State Jurisdiction” as provided by UNCLOS.

Finally, while the coastal state has complete sovereignty in the “territorial sea”, any foreign vessel can pass through it exercising the “Rights to Innocent Passage” that is also provided by UNCLOS.

Side Note for PNP Maritime Group

As aside note, the maritime jurisdiction of the PNP Maritime Group follows the concept of sovereignty over maritime zones under UNCLOS. It has the mandate to enforce all laws up to the limits of the “territorial sea.” However, the Group can also enforce the fisheries and environmental laws up to the limits of the EEZ and if properly deputized, the Fiscal, Immigration, Sanitary and Customs (FISC) laws in the CZ.


Note: The author took the Laws of the Sea Seminar provided by the Australian Awards and ANCORS.

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Marinong Pulis
This blog is an attempt by the author to create an alter-ego that is not bound by rank, hierarchy or politics. One that does not represent his personal character but rather shall remain as an identity purely found online.
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